Simon de Senlis II, the second earl of
Northampton built Delapre Abbey in 1145. The Abbey of St
Mary De-le-pre (St Mary in the Meadow), until the middle
of the 16th century, was the home to the nuns of the
Cluniac Order when it was dissolved along with all other
abbeys by Henry
VIII in 1583.
The abbey has led a rather quiet existence for most of its life but two other important events were to happen in the coming years. Devastated at the death of his beloved wife in 1290, Delapre Abbey became a rest stop for Queen Eleanors funeral cortege. Wife of King Edward I, he took her body to be buried at Westminster Abbey from Lincoln. At every rest stop made, he had a cross built in memory of her. A total of 12 were commissioned. Erected in 1291, the Eleanor Cross is one of only three surviving crosses and stands on the London Rd at the corner of Delapre estate. This, like the crosses of Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, and St. Albans, was the workmanship of John de Bello, except the statues and the head, which were the work of William of Ireland. The stone used came from Helmdon, in the south of the county, from quarries long since closed.
Ye way out of town towards London you go by a Cross a mile off the town Call'd High-Cross, it stands just in the middle of England, its all stone 12 stepps wch runs round it, above that is the stone Carv'd ffinely and there are 4 Large Nitches about ye Middle, in Each is the statue of some queen at Length which Encompasses it wth other Carvings as garnish, and so it rises less and less to ye top like a tower or Piramidy.
There is no record of what
happened to the top of the cross or when it disappeared
but local legend believes that Cromwell's army hacked it
off during the Civil war of 1642 but this is just folk
legend. 200 years previously, on July 10, 1460, Henry VI
was taken prisoner and his queen fled to Scotland. We are
told that the flight was watched by the Archbishop of
Canterbury from the hill of the Headless Cross, which
indicates that the Eleanor Cross on the London Road
outside the abbey grounds had already had its top broken
The second momentous event was when the Abbey became a prison to Henry VI. A huge battle in the fields between Hardingstone and the nunnery, known as the Battle of Northampton, saw the defeat of Henry VI by the Yorkists and his subsequent arrest. Delapre Abbey witnessed the Battle of Northampton which only lasted a couple of hours. A total combined head count from both forces amounted to over 35,000 men. Amazingly only 300 Lancastrians were slain.
A year after the abbeys and monasteries were forced to close, Delapre was bought by the Tate family in 1539. 200 years of Tate ownership saw the abbey converted into a country house. The house was sold on to the Bouverie family in 1764 and they became the last family to own it. The last of the generations of Bouveries died in 1946 leaving no heirs. The Northampton Corporation owned it until they surrendered the lease to the Borough council in the hope that the abbey can be developed and protected. Today, it is maintained by the charitable trust Friends of Delapre Abbey. With it's 500 acres of parkland and 8 acres of more formal gardens, it is one of the most beautiful public gardens in Northamptonshire. The walled garden is situated on the ancient site of the nun's burial ground and evidence of medieaval and ancient tombstones were discovered during its construction in the 1890's. It is thought that one tomb was of Simon de Senlis II himself.
On a lighter note, Delapre's only permanent resident is that of a ghostly nun, known as the Blue/Grey Lady because of the colour of her habit, (the habits of Cluniac Nuns were blue). She is said to walk the Abbey in the vicinity of the old nunnery. Over the centuries, there have been many sightings of the Blue/Grey Lady, most frequent sightings are on the main staircase
In recent years, two sculptures were introduced to the wall garden. The work of Walter Ritchie, they were gifted to Northampton in 1977 after being displayed at an exhibition of brickwork sculptures at the Building Centre, London. The large brick panels depict episodes in the adventurous life of the mythical lady, Sarah Wellington-Gore, entitled "The Lady with Kittens" and "The Lovers". Another statue was introduced in 1978. This was the "Woman and the Fish", by Frank Dobson. Originally it stood in the Memorial Gardens in the town centre since 1951where it had been totally vandalised. It was then repaired and transferred to its current position in Delapre's walled garden.
Restoration works continue
and the latest project has now been put into place. The
historic bellower and clock marks the latest stage of the
Abbey's regeneration, bringing it back to its former
glory. Inside the Walled Gardens, four Victorian
greenhouses, a thatched Georgian Game Larder, traditional
herb garden, working allotment, naturalised sculptures,
spectacular herbaceous borders and colourful beds all
combine to make your visit truly memorable. Delapre Abbey
boasts 680 acres of woodland and lakeside walks, outer
gardens, water and bog gardens and Ha-ha. The Abbey Tea
Rooms are situated inside the 18th Century Stable Block,
overlooking the Victorian Walled Garden.